KQ likely to delay flights over social distancing rules


Kenya Airways planes at JKIA in Nairobi. FILE PHOTO | NMG

Kenya Airways #ticker:KQ is considering delaying the resumption of flights if the national carrier is compelled to keep some seats empty under the social distancing rules imposed to curb the spread of coronavirus in the country.

The airline’s CEO, Allan Kilavuka, said that it would be unviable to fly with the middle row seats empty in efforts to ensure passengers maintain social distance. If the rules are maintained, then the carrier will need to nearly double ticket prices for flights to remain sustainable and profitable.

Fresh Ministry of Trade rules, which were published to guide businesses during the easing of Covid-19 restrictions, demand that airlines limit passenger numbers to nearly half of their licensed capacity in line with public health regulations. KQ had hoped to resume commercial domestic flights in “the next couple of days” as the State prepares to ease the lockdown on travel between counties, especially Nairobi and Mombasa.

President Uhuru Kenyatta had on Friday said local flights would resume soon as part of easing of restrictions on travel and business.

However, after Friday’s KQ Annual General Meeting, Mr Kilavuka said it would be uneconomical to fly as the ticket cost would increase by 60 to 100 percent.

“This will make it impossible for us to operate, and it is not just KQ alone but also other airlines,” he said.

Kenya closed its airspace in March after confirming its first case of Covid-19. So far, it has reported 6,070 positive cases and 143 deaths.

As part of its response to the global pandemic, the government halted movement in and out of five counties in early April, including Nairobi and Mombasa, grounding domestic flights.

Mr Kenyatta said on Friday that Kenya would resume domestic flights in coming days as a trial for inter-county travel, and that restriction on travel into and out of Nairobi and Mombasa would be eased. The President will review the restriction on movement on July 6.

Kenya Airways has said that there has been no scientific proof that there is risk of virus transmission in an aircraft because of improved air flow systems in the planes, a pointer that the carrier is pushing for other measures like use of face masks, pre-flight screening and sanitising cabins to ensure safety of passengers and crew.

“We had a discussion at the International Air Transport Association (IATA) board level and conducted studies to determine the risk of transmission and it was concluded that the air circulation system reduces risk of contamination because of the hyper-filters,” Mr Kilavuka said.

IATA, the global lobby for airlines, has opposed keeping the middle seats empty while advocating for other measures such as wearing of face masks by both passengers and crew members.

“Evidence suggests that the risk of transmission on board aircraft is low. Mask wearing by passengers and crew will reduce the already low risk, while avoiding the dramatic cost increases to air travel that onboard social distancing measures would bring,” said IATA in a statement.

Some airlines, including Emirates, easyJet and Delta in the US, have all said they plan to keep the middle seats empty. IATA says that airlines will need to increase ticket prices by between 43 and 54 percent depending on the region to break-even.

Billions of dollars have been spent in recent years in particular to fit as many people as possible into smaller spaces. For example, when the big wide-body, twin-aisle, twin-engine Boeing 777 planes started flying in the 1990s, most of them had nine seats per economy row on long-haul flights. Today, almost all airlines flying the plane – whether long-haul with the likes of Emirates or short-haul – have 10 seats, meaning narrower seats and narrower aisles. Load factor – in essence, the percentage of seats on a plane occupied by passengers – determines whether flights break even and are worth operating.

IATA has cited an average global load factor of 84 percent. Regionally, this will range from 89 percent in North America to 71 percent in Africa.

Mr Kilavuka said it will be difficult for KQ to operate on reduced load factor.

Kenya Airways on Friday said it has so far lost $100 million (Sh106 billion) and could lose another $400 million (Sh42.5 billion) and $500 million (Sh53.2 billion) by the end of the year.

The national carrier was struggling long before the outbreak, posting 2019 losses of nearly Sh13 billion compared to Sh7.56 billion the previous year.

The coronavirus crisis has hit the global aviation industry hard, with African carriers alone expected to lose $6 billion (Sh636 billion) this year in revenue.